2013 // USA // Steven Soderbergh // February 13, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (St. Louis Cinemas Chase Park Plaza)Squint a little, and one can discern a resemblance between Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 global pandemic thriller, Contagion, and the director’s latest and (allegedly) final film, Side Effects. Both features were written by Scott Z. Burns, who injects a conspicuous dose of public health relevance between lines of urgent, jargon-laden dialogue. Where Contagion aimed to highlight the anemic state of the world’s infectious disease countermeasures, the new film draws attention to the inescapable reach of psychiatry and Big Pharma in contemporary life. Production designer Howard Cummings and Soderberg—who, as usual, serves as his own cinematographer—employ a similar visual scheme in both films: subtle low and high angles, liberal use of shallow focus, and a palette that alternates between chilly blues and sickly yellows. Both features make good use of Jude Law’s affinity for conveying peevish, overweening characters, although his role as psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks in Side Effects is more ambiguous (and more prominent) than the opportunistic, activist blogger he portrayed in Contagion.
There the resemblance between the two films ends, however. Contagion’s novelty as a scientifically literate pop entertainment conceals a remarkably one-dimensional film preoccupied with presenting a Cassandra-style warning of real world pathogenic catastrophe. On its surface, Side Effects appears to be a similarly shallow work, little more than a cluster of murder mystery tropes given a glossy, cold-blooded Soderbergh makeover. In this respect, the director’s new feature actually has some strong similarities to his underrated Haywire, a film which also shamelessly traffics in genre formulae. Side Effects is to legal, medical, and psychological thrillers what Soderbergh’s 2012 film is to the cloak-and-dagger action picture. Granted, there is nothing in Side Effects that comes close to the apex of Haywire’s visceral, voyeuristic pleasures: Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender in a protracted, barehanded fight to the death. Still, there is a kitschy appeal to the former film’s corkscrewing story, which borrows plot elements from a dozen episodes of Law & Order and wraps them in the garish outlandishness of a Brian de Palma feature.
The bloody smears and footprints glimpsed in Side Effects’ opening flashforward shots point to a looming calamity, although the viewer’s suspicions are at first directed towards an act of self-harm rather than murder. To wit: New York graphic designer Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) suffers from severe and presently untreated depression, a condition that has been aggravated by her husband Martin’s (Channing Tatum) recent parole from a white-collar prison sentence. Following a suspicious car wreck—in which she appears to have deliberately accelerated into a parking garage wall—Emily comes to the attention of Dr. Banks, who swiftly places her on a regimen of prescription antidepressants.
Unfortunately, the leading pharmaceuticals afflict Emily with crippling side effects, among them vomiting, sleepwalking, and panic attacks. Banks reaches out to his patient's previous psychiatrist, the velvety Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and she urges him to place Emily on a breakthrough drug marketed under the trade name Ablixa. In short order, Emily is enjoying a sudden and significant upswing in her mood, and Banks is coaxing his other clients into an Ablixa study...in return for generous compensation from the drug manufacturer. For a moment, everything is going splendidly for both psychiatrist and patient, and then the floor drops out: Emily’s sleepwalking returns in spectacularly violent fashion, and Banks finds himself in a police interrogation room being peppered with awkward questions about his treatment methods and professional judgment.
Where the story goes from there is best witnessed first-hand. Even so, what makes Side Effects intriguing is not the fine contours of its double and triple cross-packed plot, but the ways in which Soderbergh and Burns upend expectations regarding how such thrillers are typically presented. Emily’s apparently pharmacologically-induced break corresponds to a slight shift in the film’s focus, such that it begins to favor Banks’ point-of-view rather than his patient’s. The back half of Side Effects unfolds in a manner consistent with countless cinematic tales of legal gamesmanship and media frame-ups, with Law playing the part of the unwitting dupe who must outwit malevolent chess masters in order to clear his good name.
However, even this familiar premise is given a cynical bent. The expected moment when Banks sees the light and his goals align with those of justice never truly arrives. The psychiatrist remains a full-fledged antihero to the end, obsessed with proving not merely that his suspicions are correct, but that he is more cunning and ruthless than his opponents. He is ultimately an unsympathetic protagonist, a preening prick whose arrogance is both the cause of his downfall and also his most significant well of strength. An argument can be made that this is an alienating way to present the story’s ostensible Good Guy. Nonetheless, it’s an approach that dovetails neatly with Side Effects’ broader depiction of humankind as a self-absorbed species battered by conflicting urges and pressures. In this respect, the film is the airport paperback cousin to Soderbergh’s frigid, elliptical tragedy The Girlfriend Experience. Side Effects conceals its nihilism behind a paper-thin upbeat ending for Banks, but it works to illustrate throughout its running time that people are fearful, backstabbing bastards at bottom.